At Hammock, our slogan is “Your story starts here,” and it’s a phrase that we live out every day. Whether we’re catching up before a Monday morning staff meeting, checking in with a client or writing a feature for one of our publications, we love to tell (and hear) a good story.
One of our favorite forms of storytelling — at least in writing — is the narrative, a chronological story that shows cause and affect, and develops through actions and characters. Like any story, all narratives have a beginning, middle and end. Though their structure may seem complex, they aren’t that different from any riveting tale you might hear at the office or around town.
Here are a few storytelling secrets to help you master the art of narrative writing:
The Beauty of Underplay
Narrative writing gives us wordsmiths the chance to use our creativity to the fullest, so it’s easy to get swept up in dramatic phrasing, elaborate description and intricate sentence structure. But you can also lose the reader as a result. When it comes to the narrative, less is more. Here are some traps to avoid:
*No matter how dramatic the story, avoid touting it in the lede (e.g., “it was like a scene from a summer blockbuster”). You run the risk of turning readers off by setting up an expectation too difficult to fulfill.
*It’s good to interview as many sources as possible, but don’t feel obligated to squeeze everyone into your story. Unless they bring something interesting or different to the piece, leave them out — mediocre characters only muddle good storytelling.
*First-person stories are interesting because they offer a behind-the-scenes look. But if you insert yourself into the story, don’t become an intrusion. Focus on describing the action and characters around you, inserting your reactions and observations when appropriate.
*Narratives thrive on detail, so include plenty of color, but don’t overdo it. Your descriptions should tie directly back to an action or character, and push the story forward; otherwise, they will clutter your piece.
1. Make a promise. Every good narrative begins with a great lede that promises readers something intriguing, exciting or illuminating. With all the media out there competing for your audience, you have only seconds to grab the attention of readers, arouse their curiosity and draw them into your story, so keep the opening simple and easy to grasp. No one wants to get bogged down in lots of statistics, jargon or detail. The best place to start a narrative is where the status quo is interrupted. Hook readers with a colorful scene or quote that introduces or reveals something about the main character, an ironic teaser that raises the question driving your piece or a short anecdote that illustrates a key point or relates to the theme. Never give away your ending immediately; instead create some mystery and expectation to give the reader a reason to continue.
2. Create context. Once you’ve nailed the lede, the beginning of your narrative should flow seamlessly into the “nut graph,” a few lines that summarize or explain the value of your story. Make sure you understand the theme well enough to state it in a sentence or two. Have you consulted enough sources to make confident assertions or gleaned through enough anecdotes to bring your characters to life? Peruse your notes for connections and synthesize the material into your words. Give readers a reason to invest their time by offering them a glimpse of the bigger picture: Why should they care about this story? What event, condition or character epitomizes this piece?
3. Use compelling characters. It never hurts to quote an expert, but remember that readers relate best to people who have a stake in a story. Use those people as often as possible instead of talking heads. Focus on strong characters that elicit emotion, propel the action or offer a unique perspective — and let the story unfold through their eyes. Include action-packed anecdotes that reveal character and motivation. If you’re writing a profile, emphasize qualities that define your subject: what drives this person, and what impact does he or she have on others? To gather this kind of material, you need to catch your subjects in their natural environment, where you can observe them, watch them interact with others and pick up snatches of detail and dialogue.
4. Build on the conflict. All good stories have one thing in common: a central conflict. No matter how “soft” your feature or topic, you can always find the conflict if you dig deep enough. Identifying the complication in the story gives it the tension necessary to keep readers engaged and entices them with the promise of a valuable lesson or critical insight at the end. The conflict can be external, internal or both, but it should present a challenge to be confronted and conquered — usually by the story’s protagonist. It helps if the conflict is significant to the human condition and centers on a struggle to which all readers can relate. Introduce the conflict at the beginning of the story, so you can build toward a climax in the middle and a resolution at the end. If you can’t find an obvious conflict, look for questions that need to be answered in the story instead of just regurgitating facts.
5. Keep it flowing. The minute your story loses its momentum, you’ve lost your reader. Keep the flow going with transitions that carry your audience from section to the next. Use the nut graph to transition from the lede to the body of the story, but after that, look to the last sentence of each graph as the bridge to the next one. Avoid — what a former professor of mine once called “nose ring words” — words that scream “transition ahead!” like “however,” “on the other hand,” even “but.” Focus instead on fitting ideas together and unifying the story through natural shifts. You don’t want to force readers through your story; you want them to move through it so effortlessly that they hardly notice how they got from the beginning to the end.
6. Keep it real. Ever heard the phrase, “Truth is stranger than fiction”? Most journalists who have been writing for a while will agree with this adage. Often, the challenge isn’t making your stories exciting enough; it’s keeping them from sounding too polished. Real life is messy, edgy and rough around the edges, and a true narrative reflects that. Readers will balk if they suspect what they’re hearing isn’t authentic, or the writer hasn’t done his or her homework. For this reason, resist the urge to massage quotes (unless they make no sense), embellish details or overstate a point. Reward readers with “gold coins” — moments that connect them with something or someone in the story.
7. Go out with a bang. Stop when you have said enough — but do it gracefully, not abruptly. You want to end your narrative on an unforgettable note, leaving readers with an indelible thought or image to take away. If possible, circle back and revisit an anecdote, character or idea from your lede to create a sense of continuity, or point toward the future and the story’s broader implications. A narrative should always end with a nice surprise, whether it’s a powerful quote that sums up the story, a metaphor that personifies the theme, a mystery solved or a glimpse at what’s ahead. Never leave readers hanging; give them closure.